Bear Market for Bear Stearns

For $234m JP Morgan has bought a bank, Bear Stearns, that was worth $20 billion last year. Either they have got the bargain of the century or Bear Stearns has the equivalent of a football team’s worth of rogue traders. It is more likely they have bought this on the cheap, given the support the Fed has also agreed to give, making it a great symbol of how the banking sector is capable of making money even when times are hard.

What I find striking about this deal is that it reminds us how the banking business is built on confidence and how easily that confidence can be destroyed. I’m sure there are some real problems with the Bear Stearns business but I’m also sure there are many assets (not least their real estate in NY) that are worth considerably more than the $2 a share JP Morgan is paying. I’m pretty sure the brains at JP Morgan will be able to clean up the Bear Stearns business, which then only leaves them with a confidence challenge. That is a classic PR challenge that in this instance is going to run right across their sector. It will be fascinating to see how they respond to this in the short term. As a sector they tend to be fierce competitors but if they want to maintain the confidence they need right now they are going to have to work well together and show the world they can weather this storm. It’s classic crisis management stuff but for an industry as a whole not just Bear Stearns who at this point are the victim.